VISTA HERMOSA, Guatemala – Barely clinging to the side of a mountain, Vista Hermosa lies beyond the dump on the outskirts of Jocotenango, in Guatemala’s Sacatepéquez department, 34 kilometers west of the capital.
Home to 375 squatter families, the precarious community lies open to the elements and lacks even the most basic infrastructure of a normal town.
As the first tropical depression of the rainy season rolled through Guatemala on Monday, residents of Vista Hermosa found themselves trapped between torrents of rushing water, mud, trash and falling rocks.
While streets can flood in any Guatemalan town – as they did just down the mountain in Jocotenango and the adjacent tourist destination of Antigua – the effects of rain are felt more acutely in Vista Hermosa. The rains dissipated for a few hours Tuesday morning, and the clotheslines of the hillside community quickly bloomed with sopping laundry.
On either side of the precipitous mud trails leading up to the peak of Vista Hermosa, harried mothers wrung out clothes and scrubbed mud out of one-room, laminated-metal houses. Families with enough income to afford low-brick walls at the bases of their homes managed to keep relatively dry, but most residents here awoke to find their homes inundated.
More troubling still, cracks could be seen developing in the saturated hillside soil, the first telltale sign of a mudslide threat. The National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction, CONRED, reported Wednesday that 12,745 square kilometers – more than 25 percent of the country’s territory – has a “very high” probability of experiencing landslides, including Sacatepéquez department.
“The danger is that you don’t know where the danger is,” one Vista Hermosa mother told The Tico Times.
Getting to school
Spend any amount of time in Vista Hermosa following a rainstorm, and you’ll hear firsthand how one family or another was buried in a mudslide or disappeared after their home dropped off the side of the mountain during a storm. Yet many of the problems caused by storms are more mundane.
Most children in Vista Hermosa attend a school run by a British education foundation in Jocotenango. On Monday, just 37 of the primary school’s 325 students made it classes in the morning.
“We only really notice major absences if it’s raining in the morning,” Daniel Burgess, enterprise director for Education for the Children Foundation (EFTC), said. “The ones that were here yesterday [Monday], we ran out of socks to give them and towels to keep them dry.”
With classes canceled by the government in nine departments across Guatemala, the students had to be sent home. The school remains closed until Thursday.
“It’s worse where a lot of our families live up on the hill. They get out of bed and their feet get wet,” Burgess said.
Vista Hermosa lacks basic drainage infrastructure or paved roads, not to mention running water. Consequently, the dirt paths down the mountain turn into cataracts of mud, and the children are unable to descend into the town, regardless of how much the situation deteriorates on the mountain.
“Clearly in all of Guatemala, investment in infrastructure is lacking, and that effects everyone,” Burgess said. “You can’t get anywhere.”
In the case of EFTC’s students, “We know they won’t eat particularly well [without the meals provided by the school], and it hurts the family financially,” Burgess added.
Vista Hermosa’s susceptibility to rain has only worsened in recent years since the construction of a primary road along the top of the ridge. This road sheds water and debris down the side of the mountain, and its construction removed many of the trees that stabilized the hillside above Vista Hermosa, according to Brenda Cay, co-principal of EFTC’s primary school.
CONRED reports that 141,096 people have been affected by the storm, including five deaths and at least seven serious injuries.
On Wednesday, the national weather service issued an alert for another high-pressure system forming in the Pacific.
Benjamin Reeves is a freelance journalist based in Antigua, Guatemala. Follow him on Twitter and on his blog. More information about Education for the Children Foundation in Jocotenango is available at http://www.eftc.org.uk.